Exclusive Interview: Michael Anthony on Disharmony in Van Halen, and Fun with Chickenfoot
Michael Anthony, the founding bassist of Van Halen, and current member of hard-rock supergroup Chickenfoot, took time from planning the release of the band's upcoming album to grant Ultimate Classic Rock an exclusive interview.
He talked about his departure from his former band, his new group's sophomore album (humorously titled 'IV') and Chickenfoot's plans for their upcoming tour. He also explains how his insides manage to stay together after decades of being subjected to low frequencies, whiskey and hot sauce:
So, you and the Chickenfoot guys seem pretty damn happy together, huh?
It's like how Van Halen was in the early days. It's four friends getting together and having a good time. I guess a lot of that has to do with, you know, we've all had our own careers and done really well. So, it's not like we have anything to prove, and we don't need to do it for the money, so we can do it just purely for the enjoyment of making music.
In between Van Halen and Chickenfoot, did you consider recording your own music?
You know what? I did kick it around. People were saying, "Hey, why don't you go out and put a band together, and just do some shows?" I didn't want to do the thing that [David Lee] Roth was doing, you know, cause he went out and put a band together and was just doing Van Halen stuff. You know, that'd be kind of a cheesy way to go. (Update: Anthony has clarified and expanded upon this comment.) When I went out [on tour] with Sammy [Hagar], I put together this Mad Anthony Express thing a few years back. I thought it was great. People were saying, "You ought to take this out, do a House of Blues tour or something." But, you know what, it was fun to do that one time, but if I were to do something it would be totally on my own. In the meantime, I was out playing with Sammy quite a bit, obviously the Planet Us thing came up, but that kind of blew apart because of the Van Halen '04 reunion. I dunno, seeing how that all came out, maybe we should have stuck with the Planet Us thing. That didn't end very harmoniously.
Well, that sucks to hear!
I wanted to do it because if it was the last time Van Halen played together, and I didn't do it, I'd be kicking myself for the rest of my life. You know, the way that turned out, Eddie didn't want me on that tour anyway, because I was a 'traitor,' because I sided with and was jamming with Hagar, I didn't want to sit on my ass and do nothing like they [the Van Halen brothers] were doing.
Really? I thought they were always in the studio working on stuff?
Well, he's always playing in the studio, and it's like, "Oh Mike, you can come up anytime." But I tell you, the last time, when we were working with Gary Cherone, coming up to the studio, I'd sit there, I don't know how many days, I wouldn't play one note, because Ed was fiddling around with his sound, or doing this or that. Or, he wouldn't show up at all, or we'd be waiting all day and he strolls up in his bathrobe at four in the afternoon, when we'd been there since 10. To me, that's not a very productive way to be in the studio. It's not like I live right down the street from him, either. Like a marriage, like anything else, I'm sure you've heard the story before."
(Editor's note: To read Michael's thoughts on Van Halen's first-ever album without him, click here.)
OK, back to Chickenfoot. You're saying the new record is heavier than the first one, right?
Yeah it is, there are parts of it that are also maybe a little darker. I think we've really evolved as a band. The first CD, we just had so much fun jamming, we had some ideas and we put it together kind of quick, because everybody else had their schedules to keep. Even though we actually kind of did it the same way this time, we were a lot more comfortable jamming with each other, and I think we dug a lot deeper. There's a lot more meat to these new songs.
Is it true you recorded 'Down the Drain' from the first album in one take?
That was the one song on the album that we basically wrote as we were playing it. We were actually taking a break working on another song. Joe just started playing this lick, and like it happened so many other times, Chad [Smith] and I started jamming a little bit. We told [producer] Andy Johns to always be recording, because you never know what could happen -- there you go, right there, 'Down the Drain.' All we had to do was, there was a little B-section that we added in. We jammed that thing for a long time, so it was just a matter of "Let's chop this off right here," but otherwise, that was a one-take deal.
Is the mood of the new record serious, or more of a party vibe?
Well, it gets kind of serious when Joe [Satriani] gets there, because he's kind of a serious musician. If it wasn't for that, between Chad, Sammy and myself, we'd still be dicking around in there.
Has that rubbed off lyrically as well?
Yeah, it was interesting because Joe had a handful of ideas, and the way this process worked, some months back, we all had a week off, where we just kind of got together because Joe had some ideas. We came up with the foundation for a few things, and that was it. Then, the way we do it, if there are ideas being thrown around, we MP3 each other, we send files back and forth because everybody is, you know, not together. Then, when we get together, it's really cool. That's where you can really see the chemistry of this band. Everything just gels and music comes flying out. That's great, that happened twice in Van Halen -- once at the beginning, and once when Sammy joined the band, that kind of chemistry was there.
It's that easy, huh?
Well, I think it was a little overwhelming lyrically at first for Sammy, because all of a sudden the ideas were coming fast. It's like, oh man, we've got, one, two, now we got four or five [songs.] Eight of the songs on the new album, we didn't even get together to rehearse these songs. When Chad and I were flying up north to record this at Sammy's studio in San Rafael, we were in record mode, we weren't rehearsing or anything. It's kind of cool that way, because a lot of things happen very spontaneously as you play songs or work them out. Sometimes, the more you listen to them, you think, "Oh, I can play this there, or that there." But when it's spontaneous, you throw stuff out there that's like, "Whoa, I didn't even know I played that." We were doing two tracks a day for four days. We had eight tracks. He's writing lyrics, and we're going, "No, we're onto this song now."
Any particular favorites?
In fact, there's one song on the album now called 'Different Devil' that Sammy had nothing for, but he really liked. It always happens, he either goes to his place in Maui, or his place in Cabo. I remember him calling me and saying "Awww, Mikey, I just got inspired!" He came up with this whole thing, and it ended up being one of my favorite songs on the record.
So when do we get to hear some new music?
We're hoping to have a single out sometime very soon -- hopefully in July. Why wait? We're hoping to have the album out sometime in the fall.
Does Sammy play any guitar on the album?
No, when you got a guitar player like Joe -- it's the same thing as it was in Van Halen -- when you got a guitarist like that, Sammy's like, "I don't need to play guitar!" But we force him to play live, because it adds a really nice flavor and blend to the music. So, whether he likes it or not, we make him strap one on.
I get that logic, but I love Sammy's rhythm playing...
Yeah, but just, one thing I love about Joe. Other guitar players, like Eddie, he had his sound; he called it the "brown sound." But Joe, on every single song he treats it so differently. He's got so many tones and sounds happening, he really treats every song totally separate. He doesn't say, "This is my sound, it's going to be blazing fast," this whole thing. On one song, he's got a real happening wah pedal effect, on another, he's got this really cool effect -- I don't even know the name of the pedal, it almost sounds like a keyboard, like Deep Purple. It makes each piece of music it's own thing.
Speaking of Deep Purple, you guys did a helluva rendition of 'Highway Star' on your first tour. What made you choose that song?
We decided on that tour, we didn't want anybody to be saying, "Oh, they're relying on material from their old bands." We wanted people to know this was a new band, so we stayed away from any Van Halen, Satriani or Chili Peppers stuff, we played things like 'Highway Star' instead. We actually did play a Sammy song, what did we play -- 'Bad Motor Scooter' -- cause it was a nice place for Sammy to get on a guitar, and it was the first song he wrote.
Well, I think you've proven your point, right?
Who knows? This next tour, we might branch out and play some Van Halen -- I don't know. We're having so much fun with the Chickenfoot stuff. If the fans really demand it we might sneak some Van Halen in there. But we don't want them to think we're relying on that.
Have you figured out who'll fill in for Chad on drums while he's on tour with the Peppers?
Well, we do have some possibles, but I don't want to throw any names out yet. We've got some great drummers that are all really interested in playing with us. I think it's going to be more of a personality-type thing. There's no way to replace Chad, and when Chad's ready to come back and jam with us, or (jokingly) if we can sabotage the Chili Peppers tour or something like that, you know, obviously, he's the drummer in this band. We're not replacing him, we've got somebody filling in for him. We just want to make sure everybody can hang, because we have some pretty hard-hitting heavyweights that would like to do this tour with us.
Is getting a big name for that spot important to you?
We're not actually basing it around anything like that. If the guy is great and fits with us, cool. But, obviously if you've got someone who's also got a name, that people are familiar with, that's good, too.
Any word on when the tour will start?
No word yet, but we would hope for either late fall, or if not, full steam ahead beginning of next year, but don't really quote me on that. I'm just speculating myself right now. But we'll go out on tour. Even after the '09 tour last year, we've been invited back over to Europe, I think we've proved ourselves with all these promoters that were kind of skeptical -- you know, "Ehh … how will they do?" We purposely didn't go out and play big arenas, and didn't ask for a lot of money, because we wanted to earn the fans' and everybody's respect as a band. This time around, I think we proved ourselves, and we're gonna come out slamming, man!
One last question -- between all that whiskey, and your hot sauce, how is your stomach still intact?
You know what? I don't question it. My doctor says everything's good. I'm sure I'm gonna wake up one morning, and slather some hot sauce on something, and I'm gonna eat it, and then next thing, I'll be eating baby food. I'm just gonna let it go, man, until that happens.